Biotech profits should grow with aging

By SHANNON SIMONS, Special to UPI  |  June 6, 2002 at 2:53 PM
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STAMFORD, Conn., June 6 (UPI) -- Advances in medical science have lengthened the lifespan of the average American, but now as the population in general grows older, there is an increased need for new and better treatment of diseases that affect the elderly -- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, osteoporosis, cancer and arthritis -- with the potential profit from the various drug treatments for these ills growing along with the aging population.

According to the "World Aging Report, 2000-2001, A Global Population Growing Greyer" from the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, the World Health Organization estimates by 2025, one of every ten persons in this country will be age 65 or over.

"In order to avert the financially, socially, and medically burdensome task of caring for the swelling aging population, adoption of safe and effective diagnostic treatment processes that can improve the quality of life is requisite," the report states. "Society will bear increasing financial costs to sustain the older population."

Focusing on the potential financial gain if the leading causes of death were to be eradicated, Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel of the University of Chicago Business School estimate that eliminating deaths from heart disease would generate an economic value of $48 trillion; curing cancer would be worth $47 trillion. In all, Murphy and Topel argue, "reducing death rate from either heart disease or cancer by 20 percent would be worth around $10 trillion to Americans, more than one year's U.S. Gross Domestic Product."

An interesting and promising new treatment for cancer is Millennium Pharmaceuticals' (Cambridge, MA) new investigational drug, MLN341. Studies indicate the drug was well tolerated [THAT REFERS TO SIDE EFFECTS. WAS IT ALSO EFFECTIVE?] when combined with standard chemotherapies in certain patients with pancreatic, lung, and colorectal cancers.

"MLN341 may be a promising therapy for a variety of cancers because its unique mechanism of action, inhibition of the proteasome, affects multiple molecular pathways important to the survival of many different tumor types," said Michael Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., vp of medicine at Millennium.

"We are very excited about MLN341's potential in both hematologic and solid tumor cancers. As it is only in Phase II trials, it is difficult for us to speculate about its financial future at this point," a company spokesperson said.

In terms of the market potential, the entire oncology market is eight million patients worldwide, where there are currently more than $11 billion in sales of drugs that address less than 20 percent of the total market potential. The leading taxane has sales of $1.6 billion, and the leading therapeutic antibody (Rituxan) has sales of $444 million.

Another promising area of research the biotech industry is focusing on is Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's caught the attention of the pharma and biotech market years ago, although investors acknowledge the market for treatment of age-related memory loss is difficult to define. However, with studies suggesting as many as 20 million or more older Americans have serious short-term memory loss, the payoff for developer of a blockbuster drug could be enormous.

A collaboration of Roche (Basel, Switzerland) scientists, Prof. Mark Pepys, lead investigator from the Royal Free Hospital and University College of Medicine (London), and other university centers recently described a possible new approach to reducing amyloid deposits -- dense fatty buildups in brain cells that are believed to cause Alzheimer's. The collaborators have produced a low-molecular-weight drug that rapidly reduces levels of a specific plasma protein involved in amyloidosis from both the circulation and body tissues. The paper, published in a recent issue of "Nature," summarized animal studies and an early clinical trial of a new drug, CPHPC, that lowers blood levels of a normal plasma protein called serum amyloid P component (SAP). SAP is a stable protein and can only be degraded by the liver. It is believed to stabilize the amyloid and protect it from being degraded by the body.

"Depletion of a specific plasma protein from the circulation and the tissues by a small-molecular-weight compound is a completely new mechanism of drug action," said Mark Pepys FRS, professor and head of medicine at the Royal Free and University College Medical School, London. "We hope to prove with ongoing studies, that the efficient removal of SAP will reduce the stability of amyloid plaques, promote their spontaneous regression in the body, and also slow the development of new amyloid plaques in patients.

"CPHPC has so far been given only to patients with systemic amyloidosis. Over the next few months we will obtain the first definitive indication of whether it promotes clearance of amyloid deposits. Its use in Alzheimer's disease and type 2 diabetes, diseases of the aging, is entirely speculative at this stage, and it will probably be years before it could be shown to have benefit in these conditions. If CPHPC is beneficial in systemic amyloidosis, it will encourage studies in Alzheimer's disease and type 2 diabetes, which are associated with amyloid deposits in the brain and pancreas respectively, but where the actual role of these deposits is unknown," Pepys said.

These new advances in cancer and Alzheimer's disease are only a glimpse into the emerging market for drugs that focus on the diseases of the elderly. As this segment of the population grows, the demands and needs for these types of treatments will grow with it.

(Shannon Simons is a Connecticut-based business/science writer and can be reached at:

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